Twilight Portrait was hailed as one of the year’s bold and challenging surprises on its international premiere at Venice, and last Saturday (October 15) was awarded the prize for best first or second feature at the Warsaw Film Festival. Tense and adeptly framed, unfolding mostly in the half-light of dusk, it centres on social worker Marina (Olga Dihovichnaya), whose trappings of post-Soviet affluence bely her disillusionment with her spineless husband and futile job. When she’s raped by traffic cops, it pushes her over the brink.
“We can’t look away and pretend we’re in a good state of social being,” says the film’s director Angelina Nikonova, when I meet her ahead of the film’s screenings at the London Film Festival next week. “I find that lots of Russian people right now, if they can, create their own small world: renovating their apartment, buying a nice car, wearing nice shoes. But what you step on out in the street is basically piles of shit.”
Dihovichnaya wrote the initial screenplay, drawing on her own experiences as a child psychologist. Nikonova says the original version was even bleaker: “When I got on board I lightened up a lot of things and put air in the story, because to me it’s very important that the viewers don’t suffocate.”
Still, it’s an uncomfortable watch. Callous disregard pervades the society Marina inhabits. When she attempts to report her passport stolen at a police station the listless woman on duty reprimands her: “But you are forcing us to care! And to work!” This bureaucratic hangover from Soviet times is no new target for satire, but Nikonova handles the scene with such deft absurdism she was asked to submit it to Cannes as a standalone short.
She’s quick to point out the scene is not exaggerated, and was inspired by something that actually happened to Dihovichnaya. But the film’s scathing depiction of social ills has found few champions at home. “Russians have received it as quite tough; it irritates lots of people,” she says. “Why? Because film is a very aggressive form of art.”
Some foreign audiences have also been unconvinced by the extreme plot twists – not least Marina initiating an affair with her assailant Andrei (Sergei Borisov), in a tense elevator scene which wrenches the plot in an unexpected direction. Enigmatic in her motivations, Marina can seem wilfully self-destructive, even grotesquely masochistic. But her relationship with Andrei is ultimately portrayed not as adoration but as radical, fearless social work. Against his emotional resistance and brutality she pits her declarations of love, in a kind of pseudo-Christian exercise in healing.
“I really think that masochism has very little to do with this; quite the opposite,” Nikonova explains. “Marina understands that Andrei is just another kid from a troubled family who has grown up into this beast. When she confronts him with her feelings, she’s basically taking charge.”
The notion of a designer-clothed saviour altruistically slumming it with (in her words) “low-lives” is sure to raise some critical hackles. But, ‘poverty tourism’ or no, Twilight Portrait is an undeniably fascinating counterpoint to Russian compatriot Alexander Sokurov’s hazily obtuse Faust. In its reworking of an age-old tale in a 19th-century setting, that Venice Golden Lion-winner speaks little of contemporary Russia – but has been championed by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as a means of promoting his nation abroad.
That Twilight Portrait got made at all was, on the other hand, something of a miracle. Having studied filmmaking in New York in the late 1990s, she returned to Russia only to struggle for ten years to find work.
“Russia is a very chauvinistic society, and directing is considered a man’s job,” she says. “There’s no way you can reassure them. I tried it all; I even dyed my hair dark brown, but it didn’t help. My scripts were popular but they never let me on set because they’re not sure a woman can handle men in production. It’s like a woman can’t direct because she might have a hormone peak and have a nervous breakdown.”
Finally, she and Dihovichnaya decided to go it alone. “Whatever money we had stowed away, Olga and I just threw in together, and it was peanuts.” They shot the film with a crew of five in Nikonova’s hometown of Rostov-on-Don, where she cast non-professional locals and called on childhood friends for help. Since Borisov had been a road cop until a few months before, his connections secured them the use of a police car.
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Nikonova reflects, “and if it wasn’t for the despair I’d accumulated by last year I wouldn’t have been able to go out and shoot a film with no budget whatsoever. I had so much energy, I knew I had to do it.”
And her next project? “I’m certainly not going to sit on my ass and wait for someone to call me. I don’t want to waste any more time. I’m thinking about a comedy that I will shoot in New York.”